One day when Nancy Dickey was a young farm girl in South Dakota, her parents gathered her and her siblings to have a talk.
“‘We’re farming all of you out to family and friends,’” Nancy remembers hearing.
Dr. Dickey is president emeritus of the Texas A&M Health Science Center and currently the executive director of the A&M Rural and Community Health Institute.
She is also the first woman to hold the title of president of the American Medical Association.
The news that her parents would be leaving their children did not come as a complete surprise to young Nancy. Nor was it a permanent situation.
“My dad was a farmer,” Dickey says. “He had gone through several years of drought and decided he was going to head west to California to find a new life and a new job.
“Both my parents had high school educations, which was rare for farming couples, and as a result, they were able to find employment in the Sacramento area.”
Not as farmers, but in the aerospace industry
“Which was really booming in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.”
Dickey’s parents both found jobs with the same company, the Aerojet Engineering Corporation. Her mother, Mary, became an administrative secretary; while Dickey’s father, Ed Wilson, took a job as a maintenance worker.
Aerojet was the maker of engines for the first U.S.-designed rockets to reach space, and later, the main engine for the Apollo Command Module that flew to the moon.
Soon, Ed joined the Aerojet animation department, eventually running the complex camera system used to create instructional and promotional videos.
“He had a knack for that,” Dickey recalls. “Creating animations to demonstrate how a rocket engine works required a good understanding of math, which my father had.”
Like Aerojet’s products, Ed’s ambitions soared.
In 1964, the Wilson family made their way to Houston, ground zero for the space industry.
And that’s how Dr. Nancy Dickey came to be a Texan.
“There’s no such thing as a ‘big-city girl’ in South Dakota,” she laughs, remembering the adjustments she had to make moving to Houston.
“We lived in Houston for about three months, then moved out to Katy.”
In the mid 1960‘s, urban sprawl had yet to reach the far-western regions of today’s Houston metroplex.
“At that time, Katy wasn’t anything like it is now,” Dickey says. “There was just one high school and no stop lights.”
While there, Nancy began contemplating her future. She worked part-time as a nurse’s aid in high school and gave thought to joining the medical profession.
While her career ambitions were still a little hazy, Nancy was clear on one thing: Eventually she wanted her own family.
A high-school counselor told her she could do medicine or become a mother, but she couldn’t do both.
While at Stephen F. Austin College, Dickey majored in psychology and sociology. She also continued part-time employment as a nurse’s aid and it was that experience that finally convinced her she wanted to become a doctor, specifically a family physician.
“I was fortunate in that I married the right man,” Dickey says of her long-time husband Franklin Dickey, who taught history and coached football at Allan Academy in Bryan before his retirement. “He told me to ‘go for it,’ and apply to medical school.
Dickey was admitted into one of the first classes at the University of Texas Health Science Center. The more she learned, the more she realized that “both sides of a doctor’s duties” appealed to her.
“I loved helping people, but I also liked being the ‘decision-maker,’ as my own boss.”
From the beginning, the Dickeys knew they wanted to return to small-town life. Ultimately, they moved to the Richmond/Rosenberg area west of Houston and Nancy set up her family practice there.
By then, the early 1980s, Dickey had proven her high school counselor wrong. She had become a successful doctor and she and Franklin were raising three children.
And like her father, Nancy wanted to lead. So, she began spending much of her “free” time attempting to break gender barriers within the AMA.
The American Medical Association was founded in 1847 "to promote the art and science of medicine and the betterment of public health." Through the years its policy development and advocacy has brought about major changes in U.S. healthcare.
“I was a debater in college,” Nancy explains, “so advocacy and policy were right up my alley. I liked all the nonclinical things that made up health care.”
Dickey remembers her introduction to the AMA when she was still an intern in the late 1970s.
“The AMA was a very different place back then,” she says. “It was overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly over the age of 60, and they still rolled up the drink carts at lunch.”
Dickey laughs at the observation.
“Male, pale and stale,” she adds.
With mounting pressures to appeal to the next generation of physicians, the AMA decided to more actively involve students like Nancy. That involvement evolved slowly.
“I was part of a student group the AMA had created, but when the Association would gather, we were usually kept down the street someplace where nobody had to pay much attention to us.”
“The Councils of the American Medical Association were the study groups dealing with the major industry issues, such as ethics, legislation, development and education. These groups were where AMA policies were made.
“When they opened up a spot on each of the councils for students and resident members, I couldn’t resist getting involved.”
The timing of the opportunity wasn’t ideal for the Dickeys. Nancy had yet to become a resident, a position which would garner her a paycheck. Franklin was supporting his young family on a teacher’s salary of about $6,000 a year.
“To be honest, the real reason I decided to run for a council positions that first time was to get a little vacation out of the deal.”
By putting her name in nomination, he received an AMA-funded round-trip ticket to the Association’s annual meeting in San Francisco.
Dickey was elected to a residency seat on the AMA’s Council on Medical Services. After she completed her residency, she then ran successfully as a full member to the council, becoming the youngest physician in history–at the age of 26–to hold a regular council seat.
While Dickey had ambitions within the organization, little could she know she was heading toward the top of the AMA’s leadership circle.
Back home in Richmond, Dickey was dedicated to her practice, her partners and her patients. Her fellow clinicians understood the demands–and benefits–of Dickey’s increasing involvement and responsibilities with the AMA.
They would fill in with her patients when Dickey was gone.
“I very much was enjoying the political side of being a doctor,” she says, “but my patients always came first. I always made sure they were taken care of.
“As a small-town family-physician, you get to do a lot of different things. My exposure to the issues with which the AMA was debating on behalf of physicians across the country helped me stay on the leading edge of healthcare.”
Some things in medicine are reasonably straightforward. Dickey estimates that during her time in private practice, she delivered more than 4,000 babies.
Doctor. Wife. Mother. Rising star within the AMA. Was there anything Nancy Dickey couldn’t do?
In 1996, the Dickeys moved to College Station where Nancy had received an appointment as an associate professor in the department of family and community medicine at The Texas A&M University System Health Science Center. In that role, she started the Center’s Family Medicine Residency Program.
And in 1998, she became the first woman president in the 150-year history of the American Medical Association.
“God love the people I worked with here at the Health Science Center,” Dickey relfects, “because shortly after I got here until pretty much the middle of 2000, I spent a lot of time on airplanes doing AMA work.
“It’s amazing what a person could get done via fax and phone.”
Dickey’s most significant accomplishment as AMA head?
“I could say it was just getting elected. Somebody has to kick the door down.
“One of our biggest accomplishments was the establishment of the National Patient Safety Foundation.
“There were a couple of years in the late ‘90s when it seemed like you’d pick up the paper every day and you’d find yet another story about how hospitals were making tragic mistakes: amputating a wrong leg, operating on the wrong body part, dispensing the wrong medication.
“Our doctors were up in arms over the criticism they were receiving. Medicine is very complex and technical and the fact is, people make mistakes. Our objective with the establishment of the National Patient Safety Foundation was to eliminate the avoidable mistakes.
In 2002, Dickey was named president of The Texas A&M University System Health Science Center and vice chancellor for health affairs. She was the first woman named to those positions.
Dr. Dickey left that post in 2012 and today is head of A&M’s Rural & Community Health Institute–”Archie,” as Dr. Dickey affectionately calls the program’s acronym.
Her life’s work has come full circle. The organization’s mission is to “improve access to healthcare and reduce disparities in health status and outcomes by improving the quality and safety of healthcare.”
Particularly in small Texas towns.
Nancy Dickey is just the ”small-town girl” to make a big-time difference in the lives of others, as she’s been doing for so long in so many different ways.